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This long-running column examines ethics in the paralegal profession. Do you have an ethical dilemma or question? E-mail us today.
Reporting Unethical Conduct
A question was recently posed at my local paralegal association meeting as to whom a paralegal should contact if the powers that be at a law firm don’t take action on unethical behavior by one of their paralegals (such as fraudulent billing or the unauthorized practice of law). What steps should be taken in reporting violations beyond the law firm? Is the disciplinary authority the American Bar Association, the individual state or local bar associations or some other agency? Is there a way to anonymously report violations, or does the paralegal doing the reporting have to reveal his or her name?
Hunt: Reporting your
firm to outside authorities for ethics violations is a very serious
step. Before you do so, make certain you have exhausted all avenues
within the firm to correct the problem. If you get nowhere, your
next step is to contact the disciplinary agency for attorneys in
your state. This will vary from state to state. In
Once you locate the appropriate agency for attorney discipline in your state, the next step will vary, depending on that agency. The State Bar of California has a complaint form that can be downloaded from the bar’s Web site, filled in and returned. There also is a toll-free number to report problems with an attorney. Although the process is set up for a client to make a complaint, I telephoned the toll-free number and was told that a third party, such as an employee, also can make an anonymous complaint, as long as it’s in writing and is specific as to the person who allegedly is committing the ethics violation (i.e., you can’t name the entire firm). The complaining person must have proof documenting the unethical behavior.
Heller: First, I applaud you for recognizing your professional responsibility to report unethical behavior. As paralegals, reporting unethical behavior outside the law firm is complicated because we belong to an unregulated profession. Most ethical codes include canons that address unethical behavior by paralegals along with a lawyer’s responsibility to ensure that a paralegal’s behavior is both professional as well as ethical. This is where the lawyer and paralegal are tied together because the lawyer assumes ultimate responsibility for the paralegal’s work, which would presumably relate to the alleged unethical behavior or UPL.
The ABA Model Guidelines for the Utilization of Paralegal Services defines a lawyer’s responsibility for a paralegal’s behavior and conduct in Guideline 1: “A lawyer is responsible for all of the professional actions of a paralegal performing services at the lawyer’s direction and should take reasonable measures to ensure that the paralegal’s conduct is consistent with the lawyer’s obligations under the rules of professional conduct of the jurisdiction in which the lawyer practices.”
The National Federation of Paralegal Associations’ Model Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibility and Model Disciplinary Rules provide principles for ethics and conduct and rules for their enforcement, both of which every paralegal should aspire to. Canon 1.2 of the Model Code states, “A paralegal shall maintain a high level of personal and professional integrity.” The ethical considerations that fall under that canon address specific behaviors and practices to which you refer. A complete copy of the Model Code and Model Rules can be downloaded for free at www.paralegals.org.
Regarding remaining anonymous, I think that depends on the process of the disciplinary or regulatory body where the complaint is made. If there is any sort of formal hearing of the charges, the accused most likely will be entitled to know his or her accuser. While this might cause some ill will and bad relations, you have a professional and ethical responsibility to report unethical behavior or UPL violations.
Cannon: Both Nancy and
Stacey advocate reporting to an outside agency; however, some
ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 8.3(a)
requires a lawyer “who knows that another lawyer has committed a
violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct that raises a
substantial question as to that lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness or
fitness as a lawyer” to “inform the appropriate professional
authority.” Most jurisdictions have adopted this provision or one
close to it, but
NFPA’s Model Code, which
A paralegal should report outside the firm only as a last resort. I believe you should raise the unethical or illegal conduct with the paralegal manager or supervisor and, if necessary, move up the firm’s chain of management to get one of the lawyers to rectify the situation and to prevent further misconduct. I recommend reporting to the appropriate state agency only if the conduct is serious, ongoing and harmful to a client. Also, remember that when you report, you are reporting the lawyer who is responsible for the paralegal’s misconduct because the paralegal is not directly subject to the jurisdiction of the disciplinary authority.
If the misconduct continues, you should consider leaving the firm. A firm that demonstrates a pattern of unethical conduct and doesn’t take steps to remedy such conduct isn’t a place a good paralegal or lawyer should work.
Therese A. Cannon is
the associate director of the Western Association of Schools and
Colleges, Senior Commission in
Nancy B. Heller, RP,
has been a litigation paralegal since 1978, and has been employed
with the Columbus, Ohio-based law firm of Vorys, Sater,
Stacey Hunt, CLA, CAS,
is a graduate of
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